Remember iTunes? Apple originally released its “digital jukebox” software way back in 2001, when music was just starting to transition from CDs to digital files. Back then, iTunes helped music lovers organize their song libraries on their computers and burn CDs with their favorite mixes.
Later that year, the iPod arrived, and iTunes became an essential companion for moving music onto the portable player. By 2006, as iPod sales grew to account for 40% of Apple’s revenues, iTunes downloads skyrocketed. iTunes quickly transformed the music industry by allowing users to legally buy digital music by the song and, by 2010, iTunes had grown to become the largest music retailer worldwide.
But then the world moved on.
Customers traded their iPods for iPhones, managing their music collections directly from their smartphones. Music streaming services grew in popularity. And suddenly having a digital jukebox installed on your personal computer seemed a lot less important. Sure, iTunes was groundbreaking when it was released, and it was essential to enable Apple’s business at the time. But it was an enabling technology with a limited useful life: once the capabilities of mobile devices matured, PC-based software infrastructure like iTunes was no longer needed to support them.
Fast forward to 2023, and another technology transition is underway, this time in the automotive world. Electric vehicles are starting to replace cars and trucks with internal combustion engines. Sales are taking off, buoyed by climate policy and high gasoline prices as well as genuine consumer interest in futuristic designs, quiet operation, and fast acceleration. Like the iPod, today’s EVs need some supporting infrastructure: specifically, public charging stations that ensure that EV drivers can keep their new vehicles fueled when they travel away from home.
In 2021, the federal government announced plans to spend $5B to build a nationwide network of charging stations along highways under the National Electric Vehicle Infrastructure Program. The NEVI plan is clear: pick well-traveled corridors, install chargers along those highways at 50-mile intervals, and make sure the equipment can charge cars quickly. The goal is to make EV chargers, especially “DC Fast Chargers” that can replenish an EV battery in a half hour or less, ubiquitous on the nation’s roadways.
Until recently, many electric vehicles went less than 200 miles on a single charge. Some, like the popular Nissan Leaf, originally launched with a driving range that was less than half of that. And that was under ideal conditions: using climate control, driving at freeway speeds, or operating during winter months could cut those range estimates by a third or more. In consumer surveys, potential EV buyers cited “range anxiety” – the fear of running out of charge during travel – as a primary barrier to purchase.
But the lithium ion batteries in electric vehicles have progressed substantially since production EVs first appeared on American roads in 2008. Several manufacturers now sell models with more than 300 miles of driving range, including sedans, SUVs and pickup trucks. And range continues to increase in new models, with one luxury EV startup now selling cars rated at more than 500 miles on a single charge. To put that in perspective, that type of range is sufficient to drive from Los Angeles to San Francisco without ever stopping at a charging station.
Are bigger batteries better?
While some question whether such large batteries are necessary, it is likely that EV range will to continue to grow. Since commercial lithium ion batteries were introduced in 1991, their energy density - the amount of energy stored within a battery cell of the same size and weight – has increased steadily, growing 6% per year. Simultaneously, battery costs have plummeted, falling 97% over the past three decades.
These better, cheaper batteries make it easier to design electric cars and trucks that can store more energy on board, and therefore can drive longer distances. And other aspects of battery performance, such as lifetime, safety and the ability to charge quickly, have improved as well. While gains in energy density have slowed in recent years, there is still room for significant improvement, especially if new materials can be successfully incorporated into today’s battery designs.
For example, if the battery’s anode - one of the components that stores energy - can be reengineered to use silicon or lithium metal rather than graphite, energy density could increase by 50% or more. That would boost the typical EV’s driving range to 450-600 miles, exceeding the range of today’s average gasoline vehicle. Those technical improvements won’t necessarily be easy, but as the EV market grows, manufacturers will increasingly be incentivized to improve their products.
If EV technology continues to improve just as the iPod did, then the enabling technology - public charging stations - will follow the same path to irrelevance as iTunes computer software. Of course, there will always be some need for public charging stations: EV owners will forget to charge before their trips, others will not have charging available at home or work, and a few may just prefer to “fill up” their EV battery quickly using fast-charging stations similar to how gasoline vehicles are refueled today.
But it’s important to acknowledge that, all things considered, gradually charging an EV during the dwell time while it is not being used will always be a preferable strategy to fast charging. Why? Because the cost of the charging equipment and input electricity is much cheaper when using a Level 2 charger instead of a DC fast charger, and the slower charging rate causes less stress on the battery.
In addition, lower peak loads from gradual charging are gentler on the distribution grid, which will need to accommodate new loads from millions of new vehicles in the future. And, speaking of the future, having EVs plugged in for longer durations means they will have greater opportunity to provide services back to the electric grid in a process known as “vehicle to grid” or V2G.
Charging at home
There is a reason that today’s EV owners charge their vehicles either at home or work over 90% of the time: it’s the cheapest, easiest option, and that is unlikely to change due to the fundamental electrochemical characteristics of the battery as well as the physical limitations of our electricity grid.
As federal agencies expend funds for charging infrastructure, they should recognize that a successful deployment probably looks a lot like iTunes. It should be affordable. The user experience should be great. And while users will highly value the service at first, its engineers should remember that it’s an just an enabling technology that will quickly become redundant.
Policymakers also should consider investing in charging solutions that address longer-term challenges that will persist even as EV technology improves. For example, NEVI does not address the fact that 30% of Americans live in apartments, condominiums, and other multi-family residences where home chargers cannot easily be deployed by an individual EV owner.
Nor does NEVI resolve important future challenges, including the need to have more EVs plug in during mid-afternoon hours – probably at workplace locations - when solar generation is at its peak and electricity is abundant, clean and inexpensive. Fortunately, there is a second program - the $2.5B Charging and Fueling Infrastructure Discretionary Grant Program – that may include installation of charging infrastructure within communities where EV owners live and work.
The program has just half the budget of NEVI, and some of its funds are likely to be spent on other types of fueling infrastructure: for example, for cars that use hydrogen or trucks that run on natural gas. But, ironically, the EV charging infrastructure deployed in that program may ultimately prove to be more enduring than NEVI’s highway network.
Rusty Heffner is a chief technologist at Booz Allen, one of the largest contractors to the U.S. government and military.
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